Professor Mike Kirkby

Professor Mike Kirkby


Creating models for sustainable land management of desertification prone areas: understanding the physical processes underlying land degradation and working with other social and physical scientists to create integrated models to guide local conservation measures and regional policy development.

There are a number of distinct themes in my work, though with strong overlaps between them. All are concerned with the understanding and modelling of landscape processes and its impact on landscape form. Models are generally seen as a thought experiments which are intended to demonstrate the consistency of general understanding, rather than as specific forecasting tools.

1. Detailed understanding of hillslope sediment transport processes
My Ph.D work on soil creep has been followed by other detailed work on soil erosion, soil weathering profiles, talus development and mass movements, particularly their cumulative impact over long time spans.

2. The relationship between hillslope process and form
Also initiated within my Ph.D, this has been the main theme of my research throughout my career. Recent developments have been towards explicit dynamic linkages between geomorphological processes and the development of vegetation,  and on the evolution of soil profiles. A second significant theme has been theoretical work on the controls on drainage density.

3. Hillslope and network hydrology
This work was initiated with R.J. Chorley in 1967, and led to contributions in Water, Earth and Man, and later to publication of the now-standard text on Hillslope Hydrology. Another significant contribution has been the development of the TOPMODEL methodology with Keith Beven, who has since brought the model to very widespread acceptance. A third valuable approach has been involvement in developing the importance of network hydrology. Current work is also concerned with developing innovative models for peat/ mire hydrology and evolution. Other recent work has been concerned with examining the role of partial contributing areas and connectivity in semi-arid areas, particularly in SE Spain (Murcia/ Almeria).

4. Landscape and regional scale models
Over the last decade, further work has focused on the important problems of scaling up models from hillslopes to large catchments and regions. One component of this work is associated with network hydrology, but another, more important element is the effort to simplify our understanding of processes at the hillslope scale, so that their essence is preserved while progressive advances in computing allow the development of effective models for regional areas of interest to both planners and GCM modellers. Collaborative work with sedimentologists, related to a longer time scale, is creating models for the interaction between geomorphology and tectonics. At a coarser spatial scale, some work is also being published on global scale models to provide regional estimates of erodibility, peat growth potential and mass movement hazard. This is relevant to both current global change concerns, and to interpreting the ocean sediment and solute record.

One important strand of this work has been to create a coarse scale erosion model, which is now referred to asPESERA (Pan European Soil Erosion Assessment), which has been developed through a series of publications  and several EU funded projects (MEDALUS, MODEM, DESERTLINKS, tempQsim, MIRAGE,DESURVEY, DESIRE, RECARE), and is currently being extended to incorporate water quality, wind, fire and grazing effects, to increase comparability of the vegetation outputs with remotely senses data. and to scale down from the original 1 km resolution to finer scales (50 - 250 m resolution) and other areas,.

Previous Projects

1. (1992-98) Modelling Mediterranean Desertification processes
(EC MEDALUS project: MEDALUS I: 1992-93: MEDALUS II: 1993-95: MEDALUS III: 1996-98.) This project has been developed under the overall co-ordination of Prof J.B. Thornes (King's College, London). My main role is the development of models for soil erosion and land degradation which attempt to provide two major innovations, first explicit modelling of long term interactions and second scaling up to areas of 1,000-5,000 km². The critical long term interactions are seen as those between the physical hydrological and geomorphological systems, and biological systems associated with soil and vegetation. Over several decades, land use change, climate change and erosion can lead to progressive changes in soil properties which determine whether degradation takes place and whether it is irreversible. Scaling up to large areas is also vital to provide a link to scales which are relevant to both economic planning and to links with GCMs.

(EC DESERTLINKS project: 2001-2004: PI Anton Imeson, IBED, Univ Amsterdam, NL) Objectives: The project supports the UNCCD Annex IV National Committees and other stakeholders at the local, sub-national and national level in combating desertification. It brings the results of past research on the physical and socio-economic aspects of desertification to bear on the identification and use of desertification indicators at various geographical scales from the local to the European. It combines a range of indicator types into a desertification indicator system for Mediterranean Europe (DIS4ME).

(EC DESURVEY project: 2005-2010: PI Juan Puigdefabregas, CSIC, EEZA, Almeria) DeSurvey is a project funded by the European Commission under the Framework Programme 6 and contributing to the implementation of the actions 'Mechanisms of desertification' and 'Assessment of the vulnerability to desertification and early warning options' within the 'Global Change & Ecosystems priority'.

(EC DESIRE Integrated Project, under contract negotiation 2007-2011) - Desertification Mitigation & Remediation of Land: a global approach for local solutions

Collaborators: Alterra (Netherlands); Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium); University of Leeds (United Kingdom); University of Wales Swansea (United Kingdom); Centre for Development and Environment; University Bern (Switzerland); Estacion Experimental de Zonas Aridas (Spain); University of Aveiro (Portugal); CNR Research Institute for Hydrogeological Protection (Italy); Agricultural University of Athens (Greece); Eskisehir Osmangazi University (Turkey); University of Mohamed V, Chair UNESCO-GN (Morocco); Institut des Regions Arides (Tunisia); Institut for Soil and Water Conservation (China); Wageningen University (Netherlands); Democritus University of Thrace (Greece); BothEnds (Netherlands); ISRIC (Netherlands); Escola Superior Agrária de Coimbra (Portugal); CARI (France); University of Botswana (Botswana); ITC (Netherlands); IRD (France); Cornell University (USA); Deakin University (Australia); MEDES (Italy); MSUEE (Russia); and Sahelian & South American institutions TBC.

Project Description: Fragile arid and semi-arid ecosystems are in urgent need of integrated conservation approaches that can contribute significantly to prevent and reduce the widespread on-going land degradation and desertification processes, such as erosion, flooding, overgrazing, drought, and salinization. The DESIRE project will establish promising alternative land use and management conservation strategies based on a close participation of scientists with stakeholder groups in the degradation and desertification hotspots around the world. This integrative participatory approach ensures both the acceptability and feasibility of conservation techniques, and a sound scientific basis for the effectiveness at various scales. DESIRE employs a bottom up approach such as is favoured by the UNCCD: i) degradation and desertification hotspots and stakeholder groups will be identified in all countries surrounding the Mediterranean, and in 6 external nations facing similar environmental problems, ii) desertification indicator sets will be defined in a participatory approach and a harmonized information system will be constructed to organize socio-economic and geoinformation data and tools for active dissemination; iii) new and existing conservation strategies will be defined with the stakeholder communities; iv) these strategies will be implemented in the field, and monitored and modeled to quantify their effectiveness at various scales; v) the results will be extrapolated using indicator sets, geoinformation data, and integrated modeling systems combining socio-economic and environmental aspects; vi) finally the results will be translated to a series of practical guidelines for good agricultural practices and environmental management, which will be disseminated to practitioners, agricultural extensionists, governmental authorities, policy makers, NGOs, land users, land owners, and local communities.

2. EC PESERA project (PI Gerard Govers, KU Leuven; 2000-2004)
The PESERA project created a model which had been evolved through a series of previous projects, to forecast soil erosion for Europe on a 1 km grid. ThePESERA model is physically based, using data for climate, soils, land use and topography, and is designed to estimate soil loss from the land, summed over the frequency distribution of large and small rainfall events.

3. EC tempQsim  and MIRAGE project (PI Jochen Froebrich, U. Hannover; 2002-2010) Ephemeral and seasonal streams are widespread in southern Europe, and represent particular problems for water quality forecasts. The biggest difference from humid strams is in the seasonal or repeated flushing of sediment and solutes when floods occur in previously dry rivers. A series of models have been incorporated into the tempQsim model, which estimates losses of water, sediment and solutes from the land (SWAT, HSPF, PESERA) and routes them through the channel network (MOHID, CASCADE). In addition the U.Leeds group (Mike Kirkby, Brian Irvine and Pippa Chapman) are responsible for a coarse scale regional model (PESCAS) which combines PESERA output with spatial network routing.

4. NERC Connect B Upper Wharfedale project (PI Stuart Lane; 2001-2004)
Integrated modelling of water, water quality and sediment delivery for best practice in upland environments.

The project developed generic understanding and modelling methods to assist in the development of best practice in upland environments.seeking to develop an integrated modelling strategy to allow the consequences of a range of upland management decision to be assessed in terms of a range of potential impacts. Specifically the research has coupled a distributed hydrological model for hillslopes, an ID routing model for the channel network, a 2D model of floodplain inundation, a sediment transfer model and a water quality model. The model is being applied and tested in the Upper Wharfe.

5. Research Councils UK. Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU). Sustainable Upland Management for Multiple Benefits 2006-2009. (PI Klaus Hubacek, School od Envrionment, U. Leeds)

The purpose of this research is to develop a framework that can help people find new ways to detect and harness rural change to enhance environmental, economic and social sustainability. It focuses on UK uplands, which are highly valued (e.g. as a carbon store, potable water source and for conservation, farming, tourism and game) but threatened by historic (e.g. pollutant deposition) and current (e.g. land use and management) practices. A range of uncertain and potentially significant socio-economic and environmental changes are anticipated in response to future policy drivers such as CAP reform, WFD implementation and Kyoto funding. The management of such complex and dynamic socio-environmental systems in the context of uncertainty requires close collaboration between research disciplines, policy-makers and stakeholders at all levels to strike a balance between different perspectives and objectives.

5. COST 623: (1998-2003) Soil Erosion and Global Change (Chair John Boardman, ECI, U. Oxford, UK). The main objectives of the Action are to make realistic predictions of the impacts of changes in land-use and climate on soil erosion across a range of temporal and spatial scales; to identify critical thresholds in the landscape and soil profile which lead to irreversible changes in the rate and style of soil erosion, and also to develop indicators that forecast irreversible change; to identify, assemble and make available datasets pertaining to historic and current erosion.

6. A follow-on COST 634 action (2004-2008) is On- and Off-site Environmental Impacts of Runoff and Erosion (Chair Veronique Auzet, CNRS-IMFS, ULP Strasbourg).
Runoff and soil erosion are among the major environmental threats related to agricultural land use in Europe. Whereas the off-site damages of soil erosion are often effective at the catchment scale, the actual soil erosion risk is determined by decisions on agricultural management practices taken at the farm scale. Therefore, farm scale management plays a key role in combating soil erosion through implementation of good management practices. Nevertheless, soil protection and conservation measures on agricultural lands have to fit within the farm organisation, which involves the simultaneous consideration of various technical, social, economic and environmental concerns.

7. Connecteur COST Action (2014-2018)  on connectivity in hydrology and geomorphology (Chair Saskia Keesstra, U. Wageningen)

  • No Teaching

Present Position

  • Emeritus Professor, University of Leeds

Previous Posts

  • 2004: Fellow American Geophysical Union
  • 1999: Royal Geographical Society / Institute of British Geographers: Founder's Medal
  • 1989: Leverhulme Research Fellowship
  • 1989: British Geomorphological Research Group: David Linton Award.
  • 1976: Royal Geographical Society: Gill Memorial Award.
  • 1973: Professor of Physical Geography, University of Leeds
    Head of Department 1978-81, 1984-87, 1992-95.
  • 1967-73: Lecturer in Geography, University of Bristol
  • 1965-7: NERC Research Fellow, University of Cambridge (Department of Geography)
  • 1965: Research Collaborator, The Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
  • 1964-5: Research Associate, The Isaiah Bowman Dept of Geography, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland (with Prof M.G. Wolman)
  • 1963-4: Research Associate, US Geological Survey, Washington DC (with Dr. L.B. Leopold)
  • 1963: PhD (University of Cambridge): Geomorphology (supervised by Prof R.J. Chorley)
  • 1960: BA (University of Cambridge): Mathematics (Part II) and Geography (Part II) (Trinity College): Philip Lake Prize

Other Details

  • 1976-2007 Managing Editor, Earth Surface Processes & Landforms,  John Wiley.
    The Journal of the British Geomorphological Research Group (BGRG)
  • 2007- Associate Editor, Earth Surface Processes & Landforms, John Wiley
  • 1976: Series Editor, Landscape Systems (7 titles), John Wiley.
  • 1976....(Ed.) Hillslope Hydrology also translated into Russian, Japanese, Chinese and Spanish
  • 1978....(Ed. with R.P.C. Morgan) Soil Erosion also translated into ....Spanish
  • 1984....(Ed. by D. Brunsden and D.B. Prior) Slope Instability
  • 1985....(Ed. by M.G. Anderson and T.P. Burt) Hydrological Forecasting
  • 1986....(Ed. S.T. Trudgill) Solute processes
  • 1993....(Ed. with K.J. Beven): Channel Network Hydrology
  • 2002....(Ed. with L.J. Bull [now Bracken]): Dryland Rivers
  • 1992: Editorial Board of Ecological Modelling, Elsevier
  • 1996: Editorial Board of Journal of Hydrology, Elsevier
<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>


  • PhD
  • BA

Professional memberships

  • Britsh Society for Geomorphology
  • Royal geographical Society
  • European Geosciences Union
  • American Geophysical Union
  • British Hydrological Society

Research groups and institutes

  • River Basin Processes and Management
<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>